Click on photos to enlarge.
I recently hinted I would write about this monument to Fyodor Dostoevsky soon and I’ve been itching to ever since. Because I love this thing. It seems like a great big secret right out in the open of the big city. That is not just me talking, it was actually intended that way. You see, this monument created by Sergei Merkurov was originally unveiled November 7, 1918, on Tsvetnoi Boulevard, where it would have been extremely prominent. But guess who didn’t like it there in the 1930s? Yeah, well. If it wasn’t Joe Stalin himself, it was someone very close to him, close enough to answer for the Big Man. And so this strange, wonderful piece of sculpture was relegated to the square by the building where Dostoevsky was born (see my blog of a few days ago) and in front of the former hospital where his father worked. The removal of the monument to this location took place in 1936. It is set back quite a ways from the street behind a tall fence with several locked gates. To get to the monument you have to circle way around the left side of the building complex and come in from the garages. When you finally get there you feel very isolated and you sense Dostoevsky’s isolation. There are no people around. Nobody really seems to be caring for the space – the grass is left to grow as it will and I traipsed through knee-high weeds to get some of my favorite shots here, including the two immediately below.
Those who know Dostoevsky will understand that these are quite incongruous shots, and that this is an unusual setting for a monument to Dostoevsky. He was an urban animal through and through. Tolstoy and Turgenev loved Russian nature and they described it with beauty and power. Dostoevsky, one might think, never noticed a tree or, at least, a group of trees in his life. His settings were the jungle of St. Petersburg, its asphalt streets packed with indifferent people, its artificial canals, its dark, foreboding, manmade buildings. And here he is, exiled, if you will, to a tiny patch of lush, billowing nature in the middle of Moscow. It’s almost shocking to see when you come upon it.
The image itself is almost daunting. It is actually off-putting at first glance. You rebel against it. It is too weird and too sick. Those hands, twisted and clenched, suggest a man losing his mind. The hunched posture combined with the severe gaze aimed at the earth all suggest pain and confusion. There is in this a reminder of the fact that Dostoevsky always provided an earth-bound view of humanity in his works, as opposed to Tolstoy, who so easily slipped into a God’s-eye view of things. Dostoevsky, for all his religious sufferings, grappled with the battles that occur on earth. And when you draw back from the sculpture and consider the image in relation to the earth on which it stands, you can even see a tad of squeamishness in Dostoevsky. Is he horrified by what he sees? Is it something awful? Is that the dead pawnbroker lying in a pool of blood down there, or is it Raskolnikov refusing to repent?
Why has Dostoevsky’s drape slipped off his left shoulder? Is he in an asylum? Is this a hospital gown? Then look at the left-side profile (third photo in the next section) and you realize the extent to which this is not a realistic portrait at all. The haircut, the shape of the beard – they’re not abstract, but they are definitely geometrical or Cubist-influenced.
Of course, all of these things together provide the answer to why the Soviet authorities finally had to hide this masterful piece of sculpture. It called into question too much of what they then were preaching.
What’s interesting, however, is how strong and powerful a figure Dostoevsky makes here. Yes, he’s sick. Yes, he’s confused and, perhaps, squeamish. But look at that massive body, that thick, powerful neck rising from broad shoulders. He is, with all of his pallid sickliness, a robust, almost crushingly mighty presence. Paradoxical? Weak-strength? Strong-weakness? Well, you see, Merkurov was working his way right into the essence of Dostoevsky. Which is why, when you spend time with this work of art, you are drawn into its orbit. It’s beautiful. It works.
Merkurov (1881-1952) was a much-lauded Soviet sculptor, winning two Stalin Prizes and an Order of Lenin. He created numerous statues of both Stalin and Lenin. He was a leader in the genre, or movement, of monumentalism. He was the creator of the three largest monumental sculptures in the Soviet Union. Many of his works – because they were of Lenin and Stalin – have been destroyed in the last 25 years. But Merkurov was already a major artist before the Soviet period began. This Dostoevsky sculpture was actually conceived in 1905 and created in 1914. Interestingly, one of the two individuals commissioning this sculpture was Lev Tolstoy. Every bit as interesting is the fact that the future great cabaret singer Alexander Vertinsky stood in as the model for the work. That, actually, partly explains the monument’s fluid, rather odd physical gestures. Vertinsky had a very distinct physical manner about him.
Merkurov studied philosophy in Zurich beginning in 1902, where he occasionally attended lectures and discussions involving Lenin. At that time he became interested in sculpture and he moved to Paris where he lived and worked from 1905 to 1907. Merkurov was considered one of the great creators of death masks, and he was specifically invited to create the death mask of Tolstoy in 1910. He created the fine sculpture of Tolstoy that stands in the courtyard of the main Tolstoy museum in Moscow. (You can see photos of that in a blog I wrote a year or so ago.)